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For years, prisoners, activists, and legal advocates have been drawing attention to the inhumane conditions at Rikers Island, New York’s most infamous jail complex. But the COVID-19 pandemic turned what was already a dire situation at Rikers into a full-blown humanitarian crisis. With cells grossly overcrowded, guards and medical staff largely absent, and an interior crumbling from disrepair, Rikers became a hotbed of contagion and needless death. What’s worse, as Judge Jonathan Lippman recently wrote in The New York Times, “90 percent of the human beings subjected to the appalling conditions at Rikers are there pretrial, many because they cannot afford bail. Almost 1,600 have been waiting for a trial for over a year. Almost 700 have been waiting for more than two.

In this episode of Rattling the Bars, TRNN Executive Producer Eddie Conway speaks with Olayemi Olurin about the ongoing crisis at Rikers and the renewed wave of outrage from the public and elected officials who are demanding that the jail be closed for good. Olurin is a public defender and staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society and an analyst at the Law & Crime Network.

Pre-Production/Studio/Post Production: Cameron Granadino


Eddie Conway:    Welcome to this episode of Rattling The Bars. Recently, the governor of New York had declared a state of emergency around the Rikers Island jail. Joining me today to talk about what’s happening with Rikers Island, the jail, the boat that’s accompanying it, is a staff attorney, public defender from the Legal Aid Society, Olay Olurin. Olay, thank you for joining me.

Olayemi Olurin:     Thank you all for having me. I feel honored and humbled and whatnot.

Eddie Conway:    Okay. Can you just start off first by telling us what the situation is with Rikers Island today?

Olayemi Olurin:      All right. So listen, Rikers is infamously a terrible place. We’ve had the Close Rikers campaign for several years now, so it’s not unknown that what’s happening in Rikers is always at the level of a human rights crisis. But now it’s especially so, forcing them to have to declare the state of emergency because there have been 14 deaths this year already in Rikers. So what happened was last year we had historic bail reform in New York City in January 2020, and at the height of the pandemic they rolled it back, just out of the blue. We had got an 11%, I think Rikers was at a historic lows when bill reform set in. And they went in during a COVID package in the dead of night and they rolled it back, and then we’ve had a pretrial detention spike. So now what’s happened is Rikers is overcrowded, that’s where it really started.

So what happened with the COVID pandemic is that it’s overcrowded, they have like 50 people in a cell. They started piling the cells, putting people who have COVID already in gen pop. Nobody could get medical attention. Then if you combine that with the fact that the staff themselves, they have a union, they have unlimited sick days. They stop coming in. So they stopped coming in altogether during the pandemic, and the crisis just spiraled. And despite pleas from public defenders to release people, stop incarcerating people, they haven’t, and the deaths just continued to go up.

Eddie Conway:       Well, I’m trying to pick apart what you just said little by little, but I want to start with the guards. I understand that part of the narrative that the department of correction and the governor is putting out there is that there’s a staff shortage and guards are out and so on. But according to national statistics, Rikers Island has more guards per prisoner than any other prison in the United States. Even with 2000 of them, it’s like six or 7,000 of them there, even with 2000 of them missing every day, it’s still overstaffed in terms of the ratio of guards to prisoners. So this is a false claim or something. Can you explain why they’re doing that?

Olayemi Olurin:      Yeah, absolutely correct. And I think it’s so that they don’t focus on what Rikers is in general. Let’s be clear. The New York head PD itself has I think an $11 billion budget. And Rikers itself has like a $850 million budget. So they’re extremely well-resourced. And they have more staff, like you said, than all the other jails. So I think by focusing on this shortening of staff, they don’t have to focus on what Rikers is, the institutional inaptitude and the cruelty with which Rikers is run. So instead of addressing Rikers itself, they rather frame the narrative as a shortage of guards. So it seems like it’s just an issue to fix rather than Rikers itself, which is really the problem.

Eddie Conway:        Okay. Well, let’s look at one of the other points that maybe a year ago or so, apparently the state assembly voted to close Rikers Island. I’m not sure of the dates or whatnot, but this did occur. Why didn’t Rikers Island get closed?

Olayemi Olurin:       So listen, the fight has been, we want Rikers closed, but we want Rikers closed and no new jails in its place. So the fight has been… Even de Blasio said, oh, let’s start the End Rikers campaign. But he wants to close Rikers and replace it with just more and more jails to do the same thing. And the problem becomes, when do we acknowledge that it’s not Rikers, it’s not the soil of Rikers, it’s these institutions. So if you put another one in its place and you create more, then you’re just putting the problem that is Rikers in other jails and continuing the same level of incarceration. So the fight has been the pushback from all of everybody that’s resisting that, no, we need to close Rikers and then put that money into decarceration and decriminalization, which at [leads] to this massive incarceration instead. They want more jails and we don’t want more jails. So that’s the hold up.

Eddie Conway:        Okay. So who is resisting the closing of Rikers? And I understand what you said because I remember that one of the proposals was to build three 30-story tall jails in the middle of the Black community, I guess. So who’s holding up the closing of Rikers though? Who’s responsible for saying, we’re not going to close it down unless you give us more jails.

Olayemi Olurin:         I think the legislators and organizers and [activists] are all at a standstill because it’s this different approach on how it is. Because people who initiated the End Rikers campaign, they want Rikers closed because they’re trying to say the problem in and of itself is this prison and this prison system and how we invest in it. The people on the other side that we need to agree with that to do it, they agree that Rikers is a human rights injustice, or at the very least they agree that Rikers has received enough negative publicity that it would be worth closing Rikers so that it seems like we’re off on the up and up.

We’re engaging in reform, we’re moving away from this unjust society. But they’re not actually trying to move away from it. They still want just as many prisons, they want just as much incarceration. So they want this symbolic change. So the fight has been that, I want you to close Rikers, but I want you to close Rikers and end the practices that lead to Rikers, and they don’t want to do that. They just want to close Rikers so that they can stop having to hear this noise and this constant negative national attention about Rikers, but they want more jails.

Eddie Conway:      Okay. And in fact, Rikers, a lot of people don’t know, is considered as a gladiator school, which leads to a lot of serious violence among the population, but also between the population and the guards. Now you said already 14 people have died in Rikers this year… From what? Can you…

Olayemi Olurin:      So it’s varied. A lot of people have died simply from the medical neglect of getting sick. I recently posted a thread of all the 14 deaths, but one of the men who died, he was in intake. He didn’t even really make it in there. He was in intake. He was in a wheelchair and they have so many people in this one intake cell, he literally couldn’t even lay down. He was confined to this chair for, I think maybe 10 days, six days or something like that, until he contracted COVID. He contracted COVID, he got sicker and sicker. He couldn’t get medical attention and eventually died. So we’re seeing stuff like that, where people are having heart attacks… One of the people, he had a heart attack and the guard had left his post 15 hours earlier. Supposed to be there, been gone for 15 hours, so the man couldn’t get medical attention. So we’re seeing a lot of that.

Eddie Conway:     Okay. So how does this translate into state of emergency in all the surroundings? What’s the state of emergency in these surrounding areas? I understand Rikers is on the island, but why are all of these other areas declaring state of emergencies? What is Rikers doing to affect them?

Olayemi Olurin:         Well, I think in the case of Rikers, when they said the state of emergency for New York City is why people… People tend not to recognize Rikers as what it is. It’s so infamous people think it’s this exceptionally bad prison for terrible people, but it’s a pretrial detention center for anybody that gets arrested, and bail gets set on them in New York City. So it’s a problem for all of our boroughs right now, I’m in Queens. But any attorney in every borough is having the same issue. Our clients, if they’re arrested and bail is set on them, they have a technical violation, that’s where they’re getting sent. So people think of it as, oh, violent crime and all this. No, no, no. You have a license suspension, you were driving your car without your license, you could be in Rikers. So that’s what it is, it’s an emergency because it’s the entire city of New York that’s affected by what’s happening in Rikers.

Eddie Conway:       Okay. Can you talk a little bit… As I was looking at Rikers, because it came across my radar some time ago when this young man was put in there and he ended up committing suicide. He shouldn’t have been in there in the first place, but I’m sure that’s a lot of the cases. But talk a little bit, if you can, about this boat that they have out in the Harbor also that they’re housing prisoners in [crosstalk].

Olayemi Olurin:         This is the scary thing about Rikers. When I talk about the inhumanity, this criminal system, I usually try to stay away from slavery or anything that might come off hyperbolic to people because this is this major injustice. Rikers is one of those things that forces you into that kind of rhetoric. It’s literally a place where 90% of the people caged right now are Black or Brown, and they’re literally trapped. They’re being kept in a boat. They’re being kept in this boat, they’re being kept in overcrowded cells, and they’re even being kept in like shower stalls. That’s how bad it is right now. So yeah, it’s a literal boat, Rikers is its own literal island. So you’re literally taking Black and Brown people and jailing them away, so far away from the other boroughs. It’s not convenient to get there, so that their stories aren’t heard. But that’s literally what it is. It’s symbolic of that, it’s a boat. It is a boat.

Eddie Conway:        OK. So obviously there’s organizing going on. What stage is that organizing going on? I heard you say they are at a deadlock –

Olayemi Olurin:       So there’s been a lot.

Eddie Conway:         What’s the next steps?

Olayemi Olurin:       So the main argument right now with the current crisis in Rikers has been decarcerate, that you have to let some of these people out. A lot of the people in Rikers, a lot of the people who died are there on violations. One of the men was accused of shoplifting a single bear, a 30 something year old guy died in Rikers. It’s things like that where we’re saying stop sending people on technical violations. And the current governor actually did issue an order where I think they released a small amount of people, but they released some people based on these parole violations.

So what it comes to is, instead of recognizing after the fact, after every death you all come in, you all say, okay, we will release some of these people that shouldn’t have been there for these petty reasons. We instead need to stop judges and people from sending them at all. And we’re getting mixed… You’re seeing a lot of legislators have been traveling, have been going to Rikers and there has been an outcry of support that we need to stop doing this. And you see that from some legislators. But on the flip side, you see people like de Blasio who just issued an order reauthorizing solitary confinement and for people to be able to be shackled indefinitely. So that’s the disconnect, is trying to make people realize, okay, this is what’s happening. Stop doing it. Because there’s a very easy solution.

How people end up in Rikers is because a judge set bail because a prosecutor asked for bail. That’s how it happened. It takes one second to get somebody locked up, but it takes forever and all kinds of bureaucracy and red tape to get them out. So what we need to happen is for people to stop setting bail. It needs to become where there’s this public backlash. Because what happened when bail reform happened, a lot of [fearmongering] started happening. You see the backlashes, oh, crime is rising, all these different… Not true. You know what I mean? The bail reform stopped a lot of misdemeanors and smaller crimes –

Eddie Conway:         Let me just break in for one minute because the audience might not be aware that New York had actually passed a bail reform bill that lessened the possibility of people being thrown in jail because of lack of money or the charges or so on. And most judges honored it. And then some judges broke the ranks and started doing bail again, and the whole thing got rolled back.

Olayemi Olurin:       So this is what happened. So in January 2020, we got bail reform. Which was a big, big deal because there are a lot of cases… You would be surprised how often just license suspensions and stuff like that is why people are sitting on Rikers island. So instead of having the… What happened is those things became non-bail eligible, meaning for a certain selective set of crimes, the standard use just can’t set bail. You can’t ask for bail in those cases. So what it meant was a whole lot of people that would’ve been sent to Rikers just because they didn’t have money, the judge can’t set bail on them. So that caused pretrial detention just to go low. And funny enough, they never mentioned this, also crime was lower, caseload was lower, everything was better and lower. So it’s not just, oh, less people are in Rikers and more crime is on the street.

No. Less people were in Rikers, less crime on the street. So that happened. So that happened around January. Then the pandemic hit around March. I want to say around April, May in the dead of night, they needed to have a COVID bill. So they needed to pass a COVID bill about the mask and all that, when the pandemic first went down. Cuomo snuck it in, in this bill, in the dead – Like, oh let’s roll it back. And just added more things and made them more bail eligible. So different standards, different places where judges could not set bail before, now all of a sudden they could. Now here comes all these judges that were upset they couldn’t set bail for six months, setting all the bail. By the time we’re in November, we’re in a crisis.

Eddie Conway:         So that needs to be rolled back again because that did seem like it was working. And that’s one of the ways in which the decarcerate Rikers –

Olayemi Olurin:       Exactly.

Eddie Conway:       …And the rest of their jail network. Is any effort being made to bring that back to –

Olayemi Olurin:        I think so.

Eddie Conway:        Go ahead.

Olayemi Olurin:        I think we’ve been fighting about it pretty much nonstop. I feel like that side of the camp has not stopped since bail reform was on the topic and now we’re going to see what happens. We just got Adams, who’s very against bail reform. He literally just said maybe a couple of days ago that he wants to revisit that. So that’s going to be an uphill battle. And that’s the problem is, they can’t reconcile their desire to engage in these classic fear mongering tactics in what they themselves are recognizing as a crisis. Because they’re saying, okay, we have a Rikers crisis now. Well, we told you a year ago there was going to be a Rikers crisis because you rolled back bail reform, because you keep setting… And they want to still do it.

So I don’t know how they are going to reconcile that, they have to start decarcerating. Which I think they know themselves because again, the governors themselves, the minute they saw it, legislators saw Rikers, the first thing they did was say, okay, we’re issuing an order. We’re going to release a certain amount of people. So you know that that’s what needs to happen. Because one of the 14 men that was killed that died in Rikers this year, he had been an old man, had been sick, had been in an infirmary from the minute he was arrested, which is something to think of.

Several of these people are so medically ill, so old, so this, they were sick. The minute that they got to Rikers, they had to put them in the infirmary. So how these people are a danger, that you can’t have them in society, but instead you’re sticking them in the infirmary where they can’t get medical attention. And his lawyer begged for compassionate medical release for him. Begged, begged, begged. And they did not issue it until the day he died. So that is the point, they have to let these people out and they know that, they know that that’s what needs to happen.

Eddie Conway:        So what would you suggest the public do? Whether it’s people in New York or around the country, in terms of helping?

Olayemi Olurin:         Outcry. The reason why these politicians and these legislators, I don’t think anything about their push for incarceration and prison, this prison-industrial complex and fear mongering, the way they do is based on sincerity. I just think classically in America, that’s what politicians believe they have to do. Be tough on crime. That’s what the popular media narrative is, and they’re responding to how they think the public is going to respond. So if the public is aware of what actually happens in these places – Because people don’t know, they only know the headlines. They know what they’ve heard about Rikers. They hear it in movies, they don’t actually know – But if they realize what’s going on, they see the pictures, their conscience is shocked, and it becomes not popular to incarcerate people and to send them there for these things to be happening, then the legislators respond in time.

So what we need from the public is to say this isn’t okay, we are outraged. This isn’t right. You can’t treat people like this. These are not forgotten people. These are New Yorkers. These are our family, these are friends. This could be us. So I think what needs to happen is they’re going to respond to the public because that’s why they ruled back bail reform in the first place. Not because it wasn’t working, but because it was fear mongering happening and the media and the post insisting that, oh, this is dangerous. We don’t need this. All of this just made up propaganda. And so that’s why they did it. And if we have the reverse where people say, no, no, we need this. This is not a positive reflection of a civil society. We cannot have people dying in jail pretrial. Then the legislators respond that way. So we need the public to say no.

Eddie Conway:       Okay. All right. And we just touched on COVID a little bit, but I understand that a lot of the guard force is not taking the vaccine, they’re coming in and out of Rikers. How does this impact… One, what’s the situation in records in terms of COVID? And two, how is this constant transfer of potential virus affecting the communities?

Olayemi Olurin:       Terribly. So that’s the thing. COVID has negatively and disproportionately impacted communities of color from the beginning just out in the world, let alone in prison where, or in jail or any pretrial detention center, where they’ve already, we all know who’s there. 90% of the people in Rikers are Black or Brown because that’s the community which they police, they arrest, and they incarcerate. So now they’re in cells where it’s impossible to social distance, they can’t social distance. If you’ve seen the pictures, they’re literally basically laying on top of each other. That can’t be done. So they can’t do that. There was a time at the beginning of the pandemic when they had them producing the masks and the hand sanitizer, and yet would not give it to them. They can’t get medical attention. The infirmaries have been backed up because on top of the now rampant violence and illness and all of this happening in Rikers because of this, now people have underlying illnesses that are being exacerbated by the fact that there’s COVID, these people are COVID in general pop.

So it’s tearing through our community. And what people need to remember is Rikers is pretrial. So nobody in Rikers is not like, oh, these people that are getting sick, they’re getting COVID or they’re just there forever. No. They’re going to come out. They have to interact with their families. They’re coming in and out of the community, same thing with the guards. So it’s not just when you let a COVID crisis go crazy within Rikers, you are necessarily causing the same to New York City. That’s what’s going to happen. So when these people get out, when the guards go in and out, we’re all in danger.

Eddie Conway:      So part of the log jam is the fight over those replacing Rikers with other jails, whereas people in the community want to use those funds for the community, and it would maybe make conditions better. What do you have to say about that?

Olayemi Olurin:        Yes. The only thing that makes any logical sense is to put the money into the community. Even if I believed what they were saying that, oh, these neighborhoods are high crime areas. These are all problem populations, like they want to believe of Black neighborhoods. If that were true, the problem has not been solved by you giving all of the money to the police. If you recognize that most people in your criminal system are broke, the problems that they are there for have been exacerbated by the fact that they are broke. Instead of giving the money to the police, the people that are just supposed to protect and serve them, why wouldn’t you give it to those people? Because it makes no sense. It’s counterintuitive even when we think of how we look at protection. If I were a person and I was going to have a bodyguard, my bodyguard wouldn’t be worth more than me.

My bodyguard wouldn’t have more resources and be in a better position than me. So how is it possible if the police are actually there to protect and to serve. The community has nothing. You recognize that they have nothing. You continue to jail and incarcerate them for having nothing and then put all the money into the policing. So no, what we need is instead of putting billions of dollars into policing our own citizens, we need to give them the money and the resources to avoid the problems that lead to crime. And that helps us all, because not only have you prevented a community from having to recycle, just be in and out of jail, but you’ve also protected yourself from the crime that you claim you want to stop.

Eddie Conway:          And let me just ask you this too, because I heard you earlier say that you had a caseload of like 400 people. And you could count on one hand the amount of people that were actually involved in serious violence.

Olayemi Olurin:         Exactly.

Eddie Conway:         But I want to bounce back the fact that you have a caseload like that means that money is not even being invested in protecting the city or the citizens because they’re overworking you. Juggling 400 cases is… And you are just one attorney. And other attorneys have probably similar caseloads like that. Why isn’t even more money being invested in protecting the citizens’ rights?

Olayemi Olurin:         Because that’s not what they’re in the business of doing. They do not want to protect your clients. Listen, no one involved in the criminal system… When I’m in the court, I feel like I’m in the twilight zone half the time. Nobody there is there to help your client. Nobody is there to pursue justice. Nobody’s there to parse out the truth. The moment a person is arrested and they are taken to court to hear their charges and to hear about bail, everybody in that courtroom is against them but me, but whoever is the defense attorney, and that’s how it’s set up. That’s why prosecutors and defense attorneys are directly across the aisle from each other, but they have certain benefits, perks, and money that we are not given. Why? Because we are in the business of trying to help the defense. And that’s what it is.

We have a caseload cap at legal aid, and I’m blessed as a public defender to work at legal aid. And by comparison the public defense attorneys across the country. And we have a yearly caseload cap, I think 404 cases. And at any given time, we usually have a hundred cases. So you are already set up to be dealt… You can’t give each individual person the attention that they need. You can’t give the cases what it needs. And that’s the way the system behaves because they want to churn them through. That’s why I look at being a public defender as a harm reductionist or someone that slows down this process that is trying to quickly railroad my clients. But that’s what it’s in the business of doing, let’s treat these people as numbers.

Because if they gave us a few key cases, imagine a world where we were adequately funded and I had five cases. The average private defense attorney probably represents maybe a handful of people throughout the [inaudible], they would know. What happens is they’re incredibly invested in that individual case. They can investigate that, they could fight that little tooth and nail stuff. You can’t do that if you have a hundred cases. And the prosecutors themselves who also have those same kinds of caseloads also can’t be bothered to care about the human element of your case. So what it does is it allows them to dehumanize an entire population of people and churn them throughout the system.

Eddie Conway:      Okay. So do you have any final thoughts?

Olayemi Olurin:       My final thoughts… It’s important that we think of these people as real. The other day, what really struck me when I decided to compile all of the people who had died in Rikers this year, I could not find a single article that had done it first. Every article might mention that there’ve been 12 deaths, 10 deaths, 14 deaths. And they might mention two or three people maybe, but they don’t bother. And there were some people that I couldn’t even find photos or information about. Because there’s this disregard with which people treat life that’s lost within the criminal system or that’s lost to or by the criminal system. Even the ones that they’re like, oh, these are just suicides. No, these people didn’t kill themselves just out on the street.

That’s not what happened. You subjected them to all kinds of abuse that we probably can’t even imagine. And that’s what happened. So I think my final words are we need to recognize that these are real people. Whether or not the media is painting it to you that way, whether or not they’re showing you their picture, whether or not they’re going out of their way to humanize them, these are real human beings. And if we allow a structure like this to stand, if we allow for people to just continue dying and dying and dying and that never gets addressed, we put us all at risk.

Eddie Conway:          Okay. Thank you. Thank you for joining me Olay.

Olayemi Olurin:        Thank you for having me. Honestly, you have no idea how humbled I am, truly, truly.

Eddie Conway:        Okay. All right. And thank you for joining this episode of Rattling The Bars.

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Executive Producer
Eddie Conway is an Executive Producer of The Real News Network. He is the host of the TRNN show Rattling the Bars. He is Chairman of the Board of Ida B's Restaurant, and the author of two books: Marshall Law: The Life & Times of a Baltimore Black Panther and The Greatest Threat: The Black Panther Party and COINTELPRO. A former member of the Black Panther Party, Eddie Conway is an internationally known political prisoner for over 43 years, a long time prisoners' rights organizer in Maryland, the co-founder of the Friend of a Friend mentoring program, and the President of Tubman House Inc. of Baltimore. He is a national and international speaker and has several degrees.